September 2016 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

A monthly feature that looks at books of and about poetry.

September 2016 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

The Best Books List


Babushka’s Beads: A Geography of Genes: New and Selected Poems by Elisavietta Ritchie. Poet’s Choice Publishing House. 113 pages.

Café Select by W.M. Rivera. Poet’s Choice Publishing House. 123 pages.

By My Precise Haircut by Cheryl Clark. The Word Works. 74 pages.

Archeophonics by Peter Gizzi. Wesleyan University Press. 79 pages.

Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter: or Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances by Elizabeth A.I. Powell. Anhinga press. 103 pages.

Dig by Bryan Borland. Stillhouse Press. 74 pages.

Confessions of a Captured Angel by Neil Carpathios. Terrapin books. 91 pages.






Babushka’s Beads: A Geography of Genes: New and Selected Poems by Elisavietta Ritchie. Poet’s Choice Publishing House. 113 pages.


Café Select by W.M. Rivera. Poet’s Choice Publishing House. 123 pages.

Elisavietta Ritchie is a seasoned and accomplished poet. Poet’s Choice is the publishing arm of the William Meredith Foundation; Meredith was former United States Poet Laureate and is the imprimatur for books the Foundation sees upholding his heritage. Both poets chosen, this year, are writers at the apex of their literary careers. If we see Ritchie’s full name we know the tenor of the book: Elisavietta Yurievna Artamonoff Ritchie Farnsworth. The book is a theater of old Russia, new Russia, emigration, communication, an archaeological dig into the gold and beads of family trees—each poem a commentary on life in a very different time. In the poem” The Persistence of Uncle Ivan 1900-1919,” we read, …” In the civil war between White and Red armies, /his novels written at 19 left unfinished in Leningrad/with his poems and scored schoolboy themes and purple ink, //he was shot in battle north of Kharkov near Putivl, / a hamlet not on my old map….’he was tireless under fire.’ …” From “In The Early Days of World War Two” — “ My father beams in the photo from England,/Behind him, trees, and a church tower, squared –/ the spire, I imagine, must be bombed off:…” and in the poem “Babushka in America, 1933” “ Yuri purchased his mother’s exit from the USSR.// After 15 dangerous years under Bolsheviks, NKVD,/the betrayal and disappearance of thousands of souls,/ Famine years when the Bolsheviks forced peasants/ into collectives, harvests fell and people starved,// she reached Ellis Island then as an icon and terrified…” Lisa is the temple guardian of a world now gone. The sepia photos push forward the past, with its fragments, to a union with the present, an elixir vivid and true. If you want to witness the displaced elements of a time before and after the Soviets, it’s best to go to a contemporary context; and better still in the company of Ritchie’s high standard of writing.

 A Geography of Genes

My father taught me to decode
wiggling lines and whorls
of valleys, buttes, deserts, coasts,
and their skewed-mirror images
on the ocean floor.

He showed me where Atlantis
might have floated,
the jigsaw puzzle of Gondwanaland,
how to locate North —
inconstant at the Pole.

My mother always found a beach
by scent of bayberry and salt.

His poor sense of direction
tugged him off course
yet he read flat clues
to rivers, hills and streets,

and in three dimensions
his fingertips deciphered
contours of his mistresses,
mapped journeys
of affection, infidelity…


Café Select epitomizes the art of love, literally, with language, and visually, in 24 water colors, drawings, and paintings by Mexican American artist Miguel Condé. Each poem is a visceral moment, not an echo of one. This means that Rivera has the ability to “happen” on the page. Tiny worlds of desire open up with hidden truths and their alienations. Rivera activates words to summon sensual responses. In “Nude no. 139”: (An Irving Penn photo, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art) “I am caught up in a crowd closing in on a gelatin/ silver print, a photo of a woman, a somewhat heavy woman/ in a ‘lounge pose’ for the camera…Nude 139 is a Greenwich morning-after thrown-together/beauty off- hand, yet organized. The model/ is not La Grande Odalisque, lives closer to home./ No harem whore, yet ready to be stirred up,/her body odors and perfume, waiting for you/to voyage inner continents.“

However, sex and thoughts of sex become images and symbols holding onto a vital existence, finding their places in the crucible of time. The poem “Blank Paper Thighs” ends with this stanza, “…Being in the picture where you were somebody else,/younger, still remembering who you meant to be/back then, what’s not, inevitables you couldn’t avoid:/a gun up your nose, war, Icarus hanging by a limb./ Her far-off become blank-paper thighs.” These restorations become critical moments of the present, and lust is not the least of these: In “The Origin of the World’ Close Up” (Courbet, L'origine du Monde, 1865): “I examined the vagina in a close-up photo, /flaps and hood, such a modest proposal! /A bump above a closure into one/we came out of, going into, spelunking for what/we cannot find outside the cave…”

This is a highly literate book from a cosmopolitan world view. Sex is a metaphor for that which is welcomed, and then lost. The poem “Out of the Shadows” includes this “…To be old is a weird gift, taking time/seriously, not as a series of events,/degrees, deeds, but nights peppered blank to bright.// How gentle their distraction from the dark, their sparks/ diverging moments from blank too bright.”

The illustrations by Miquel Conde’ are the most beautiful I’ve seen this year, anywhere, any museum, any book.

If Just for Coffee

I discard urgencies on the calendar,
sneak a preview of the light flowing
through the window slats, remove
earlier objectives from the future,
ignore the suns-up’s insistences. This morning

I am a happy man. Swept up in the flesh,
the new day’s newfound focus, I ignore
imagination’s web of lost images,
reshape the edges of chaos. It’s a perfect
today, the kind of day I’ve been waiting for,

knowing you, not knowing you, only
knowing you’re coming, if just for coffee.


By My Precise Haircut by Cheryl Clark. The Word Works. 74 pages.

This is a genderful scorecard of good poems by a self-described “Black Lesbian Feminist.” Included here are letters from slaves, letters from friends, testaments, and memories —

altogether a photo album of race, religion, epitaphs, lives and deaths, said both wise and sassy — complicated and simplified — lives on display that make a permanent indentation. Sometimes it’s a girl’s voice that calls us; different voices create access points, writing the record of historical discrimination in America. Clarke does it not with scorn but meaningful anecdotes; and a style designed differently each page to reach her audience. She can deal it up. She can tone it down. But let’s do some hand dancing for the way she finds her way in each time.


d.c. meditations

post-post reconstruction

Washington. Detroit. Rutherfordton. Bloody Tulsa Pearl left
the red dust of serfdom to the mean old black man who
named her.

Willy had that tincture of the African, white-skinned like
his mother.

The whole family was evicted when the landlord, thinking
Willy white, later saw Pearl and her dusky children.

She followed him to work and met him coming home in later
years to ensure he wasn’t passing. Allowed a mania about
the downstairs neighbor trying to seduce him.

That was later. Years of bed confusion, loneliness, despair —

Far from the days of good looks.


Archeophonics by Peter Gizzi. Wesleyan University Press. 79 pages.

In the workplace of language Peter Gizzi gives a new experience every time. I like these poems above all his previous ones. He’s written a breakout book with perfect rhythm and timing inside exquisite poetic situations. There’s no ego in this writer’s work. It’s one of the purest examples of truth told from an inside source, beautifully patterned on the page. Many of the poems use words repeated into subsequent poems, making a group into a suite. The entire first section is an evolution of thought, finding magnitude and freedom within an economy of words. What do we see reading Gizzi — loneliness at the core, a quiet excitement under the line, integrity, his relevance in word placement, and deliverance — the confidence to make poetry the front edge of thought. There’s no training ground for such writing. Every page, every poem, is challenged with unpredictability and intensity; and yet the stories are told lightly. At the high end of lyrical thinking, Gizzi makes it look so easy we’re relaxed into wanting to read it all again.


Google Earth

Taking in the earth from wide space; to see its
incommensurate blue; I am also thinking of your
face, its dark wilds always, its burning incandescent
blur; it wasn’t the sky exactly, it’s more like the sky an
arrow takes; I once texted all I really see is your face;
the world is broken down tonight, when you’re far I
don’t like the sea, don’t like these clouds either, the
tree’s canopy, don’t like these touch screens majestic
with distance.


Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter: or Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances by Elizabeth A.I. Powell. Anhinga Press. 103 pages.

If you want to see courage, originality, and improvisation, read this “Robert Dana-Anhinga” prizewinning book of poems. Thank God for “recklessness,” writing under, over and around lines like victory laps. Every poem, every prose piece is a delight in style. This is the game of art and why we play it. Powell takes a well-known American icon “Willy Loman,” from the drama “Death of a Salesman,” and parallels this with her failed father, his adultery, the tragedy of the American dream, and she makes it new with her own connective tissue. Powell creates a central role, psychology and behavior, creating an archetypal persona to enter the poems. The narrative is an evolving set of consequences about abandonment and self-delusion. These are charismatic pages of imagined and real situations and although Arthur Miller is at the core, Powell takes it to the top her own way. Sometimes it all works because of experimentation and other times because of metrics. Many piercing poems are in well-mannered sonnet forms; and wildness is dignified into couplets. Powell can write, but so can so many others: what she has, is the ability to show what corrupts us and how poetry seeks to wipe it clear. She matches tension from Arthur Miller’s play with the tension in her life so this is dangerous territory, because Powell plays with her own identity in a dissolution of fantasy. I write reviews hoping to find a book like this.

Set Design: What the Door Knows

The door is clairvoyant. It doesn’t need the fingerprints
to say. The door knows whom the unknown will shroud next,
its rust creaking hinge pontificating. No one understands
just how much this door knows. Its lintel provides a hint:
Weary is the man who knows his fate.

The door’s every rumbling atom fueling
each seismic prophecy. If you breach
this doorway, beware of treading on its sill;
carefully turn its burning handle clockwise.
This door made of nails and glue, smooth white paint,

a lock that always sticks. This door discerns the dates
of all who pass. It knows the manner and details
of your death. It screeches its witness. You will know it
by the lead paint chips flaking from its frame,
and it will grant your coming or going before you do.


Dig by Bryan Borland. Stillhouse Press. 74 pages.

Bryan Borland is the recipient of the 2016 Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award, and I can see why; his book is a gravitational pull toward love. The poet creates a special place in the world that didn’t exist before in spite of a plethora of gay literature. Borland lifts a banner for not only his own relationships, but a systemic brotherhood; and beneath startling verse is a rational blueprint for male love. Borland’s temperament is playful and tender and at times raw. He details sensuality as a personal masterwork, honoring the sexual with high angle reported. Borland’s poetic formulations, with their complexities, artfully integrate (Dig) to build a community of connections, starting with look at me, and how and why I love.




You want the dirt,
all the sin and tendon
you think are under these nails. I beg,
instead, forget ten years of my life.
Let’s redact the documents, change
the sheets on the bed. Draw lines
through names and dates. Relationships
are never linear. Let’s start, if we must
start, at the last end we know, the slime
of those boys we buried in the yard. Or start
the story in our middle, with two dogs
pulling us down this path, far enough along to
know we survive. Deep enough that
questions turn to statements.
What is a poet? What is a husband?
Forget there was a time we didn’t know
one another. Don’t ask
about candles of ceremony. What meals
were eaten from these plates.
If you must remember something,
remember this: I am a poet.
You hear I was a husband.
Or some form of that word
before I was your husband.
You had lovers, too. We bring
ink to this, books from other tribes,
societies whose languages had
nothing of what we are together.



4 P.M. Count: A Journal from Federal Prison Camp Yankton, edited by Dr. Jim Reese. National Endowment for the Arts Interagency Initiative with the Department of Justice Federal Bureau of Prisons. 240 pages.

For eight years poet and associate Professor of English, Jim Reese, has been teaching poetry to prisoners at South Dakota’s Yankton Federal Prison; better still, each year he produces an anthology. The preface Reese writes is simple and profound about how he studied and prepared, to find only that each student inmate wanted “a safe place to reveal their secrets and agonies.” He says his PhD had no place there; he traded it for empathy and the gift of giving the man back to themselves with their own stories. Reese found that most of the men are imprisoned because of a lack of education and addiction problems. Many of the men in this book are working on college degrees. The book is a winner where art heals –and in the writing the better parts of the human prevails. There are drawings, letters, stories, poems, photos and bios of the writers. The title 4 P.M. Count is from that moment in each day when no man can be seen because all are inside for the daily headcount.

We read each piece to follow the rise of hope; and to see forensic evidence of how a life warped by circumstance can be saved by an organized approach to the inner voice. What’s at the core of each person is regret, longing, appreciation, curiosity, and a hunger to improve. Another layer that can’t be ignored is that all is created from a compressed space designed to suppress rather than express. Yet, when a poet comes in and implants the power of words and feeds the wish for a high standard of life, the totality of effort is this fine book. These men in federal prison are remixing their pasts with their futures. They use internal logic to get to imagination, and then become heroes of their own stories. All writers’ expectations are frightening. Every one of us feel the responsibility of the blank page — and to these men the care and feeding of words is all they have to climb back to their best selves. Poet Reese goes into a gray room and the sun comes out. Men begin to create narratives that are completely free of confinement. Language knows no boundaries because the voice is spirit; and someone just has to guide it. The book is available free of charge by contacting Jim Reese at

Game Changer by Marquise Bowie

            I grew up sipping on that liquid courage, and when
you have seen as many brothers die young as I have, it’s easy
to get discouraged.
            I come from a place where you’ve gone to more funerals
 than graduations, hope that you make it through today, and
if you do, tomorrow don’t have no expectations. Drink that
Maddog 30-30 to try to drown out the pain, see the same
people, same hood, same trials and tribulations, but the
game done changed.
            We don’t play checkers no more, we play chess, the
playing field looks the same, control the middle of the
board, and get your pawn game up, cause if you get
checkmated in life, there ain’t no next.
            These young players don’t care nothing about no rules
and regulations, they ain’t trying to hear you talk about no
loyalty, they play all the games at once, give a clue, so they
can stay out of trouble, because they’re sorry, play the block
like Monopoly, them get out of jail free.
            In Mrs. Pac-man the goal is to avoid ghosts (police)
and gobble the pellets (money) in order to get the high
score (fame and glory). The Feds ain’t playing no games
and they will give you a high number (years in jail) that you
can’t remove by unplugging the game or pressing reset.
            So get serious and give up the games and quit playing
with your life. Real life is no game. Because the new game is
played with hidden microphones (wire-taps), and cameras.
And it ain’t about what you are doing, it’s all about what
they are saying! When that cell door locks, or if that casket
            It’s game over.


Confessions of a Captured Angel by Neil Carpathios. Terrapin Books. 91 pages.

This is a book I’d teach to any age/any student/ because it demonstrates the worth of poetry. I often repeat what Joseph Brodsky said about poetry being the only record of human sensibilities, beginning in Greek and Roman antiquity. The way Carpathios sees the world is the record I’d like of our time. The poems are chord progressions from childhood remembrances, (stealing a stone at the Parthenon,) to fatherhood (discovering his daughter’s tattoo,) reaching age 50 and feeding his mother Jell-O in the infirmity of her old age. There’s nothing mystical about being as human as possible, but there is terrific difficulty in conveying its essence. This is a defining work of measured impressions that together express the mercy of life. The climate of the poetry is in the shadow of death; but suddenly that seems like an okay consequence to having had the acceleration of this world to navigate, and write about. To reshape occurrences with compassion, humor, and particularity makes everything seem better on earth. Carpathios does this to the good, and gets the best out of words. Give this book to a friend, to your children. Let them know what’s possible in poetry.


What the Leaves Said

That they don’t do birthdays or have funerals.
That the wind has mood swings even they can’t predict.
That the possibility the wind is God is too obvious to discuss.
That the roots of the tree sometimes speak to them in dreams.
That they have never witnessed a mosquito begging
to be forgiven.
That they admire the tight-lipped stones.
That letting go is not a choice.
That the evergreens are boring and self-righteous.
That the only things on Earth smarter than them
are ocean waves.
That squirrel feet tickle.
That raindrops are snacks.
That no leaf is lunatic enough to pick itself up and try
to reattach to the branch.
That in the dark they still watch us.
That being naked is nice.
That they are not ashamed to dance with many partners.
That they know how lucky they are to be here a short time
to listen to the birds,
to notice a cat curled on a porch,
to blow kisses to the garbage men clanking cans at 5 a.m.,
to listen to the crickets.



Happy you are here by Ayaz Pirani. 67 pages.

Girl Without Limbs

Not impurities alone are burnt in the fire.
Buds and blossoms too are blackened.


There was another girl —
a beggar. She did
have her legs
but no arms.
I wondered how they
had come off?
Seven myself at
Good Morning Paan
she lay on cardboard
like a doll dropped from
a dog’s mouth.


Works On Paper by Jennifer Barber. 75 pages.

The valet

waited across the room,
not a man but a wooden stand.

My sister and I
stroked the back of my father’s hand.
He moved his jaw as if answering.

The hospice nurse
said he was growing wings
and would leave us when the wings grew in.

The valet held
a shirt and a sweater and corduroys
from the day before

with its limited
​knowledge of the body of a man.


Simple Machines by Barbara Duffey. 78 pages.


A dog impulse is an old thing to pass
Through — a bit, a catch, a clack, a pawl that
stops the cog from turning back. Like time, a
rachet reaches forward, only; your hand
in its easy offering, I left once
to rattle the air empty as a plate —
that pinion-latch must mean I mean it still.


Glass Factory by Marilyn McCabe. 66 pages.


Fingers in every crevice.
Carry with me trunks and cloaks.
Taken walls. Some hours I blithely destroy.
Wrenched handrail, a hat sodden, blue wool, stolen sneakers.

I am not responsible.

Driven by furrow, frenzy, the far clouds,
untied and mud soiled. Dammed
here. There straying, fringed, forgetting.
Deepening. I depend on the cycle
of my own disintegration.


If Mercy by Frannie Lindsay. 84 pages.

Improvisation for a Friend in a Time

of Sorrow

The mare asks what else she can give you,
for she has dragged the last knotted star
out of the barn by a nail come loose from
her back left shoe in return for
the baby-cut carrots
you packed in your lunch;
she has sloped her polished neck
and eaten each one from between your thumb
and your forefinger: she has taken all of
the time that she needs, her teeth
the size of chapel doors, the peaceful steam
of her nostrils’ velvet tunnels.
Still it is late in the year and the pasture is frail
so she offers her bruised horse heart, a few
strands of hay, the motherly damp
of her nickering.

Grace Cavalieri is producer/host of public radio’s “The Poet and the Poem,” celebrating 39 years on the air. Her new book of poems is With (Somondoco Press 2016).

Like what we do? Click here to support the nonprofit Independent!
comments powered by Disqus